Self-Service Check Out: A Sign of the Apocalypse?

I know we are in tough economic times. Sacrifices must be made. Budgets must be cut. But can you go too far? Can personnel cuts go so deep that they become counter productive? For example, a layoff may make no sense if all the cost savings are lost due to overtime paid to the remaining employees. Similarly, cutting staff would seem to be inappropriate if customer service deteriorates to a point that customers are driven away. Yet, many retailers seem to be taking such an approach in the expansion of self-service with briefcases

Last weekend, I visited a major home improvement retailer to purchase seeds for this year’s garden. I won’t say its name, but its logo is blue and white. Now, I am generally a fan of this chain and drive a few extra miles because I have found it offers a great selection of goods at a fair price. But mostly, I go there because I have found it’s employees knowledgeable, helpful, and most importantly, accessible. I drive right by this chain’s major competitor (the one with the orange sign) for this reason. But the customer service of that chain is not what this post is about.

By the time my wife and I had finished our shopping, we had a couple of dozen seed packs and related materials. As we approached the checkout, we noted that every aisle was closed except the self-service checkout aisle. Two clerks were working at a closed aisle. When I approached them, hoping that they would open up, they directed me back to the self-service checkout aisle. A sense of dread came over me.

Be honest. Have you ever been able to successfully checkout a dozen or so items at a home center or grocery store without a problem of some sort? I never have. Either an item won’t scan or an “unexpected” item will be detected in the bag, or some other issue will require assistance from the clerk (i.e. how do you ring up two loose screws and three nuts? Or, is this a sweet potato or a yam?)

Paying for the goods is an ordeal. My charge card must always be run through the other way. The receipt comes out some unexpected place. Instructions (and mistakes) are shouted out from the machine for all to hear.

It is clear that these machines are simply an amalgam of other machines bolted together. I recognize them. A card reader over there, a printer up there. They are just not designed in a way for an untrained consumer to complete a transaction.

But I was lucky this time. The clerk in charge of the self-service aisle took pity and did the work for us. She was, as you would expect, very efficient. The elderly gentleman behind us was not so lucky. Poor guy was just trying to buy one item. He couldn’t get it done. The machine kept bleating about the “unexpected” item in the bag, which led our clerk to tell him to pick up the bag. He did, completely above his head. As soon as he would put the bag back down, the machine would start over and he would lift it back over his head. You should have seen the look on his face. After the third time, I had to shout, on behalf of him and all the customers in self-service aisle everywhere: “Can somebody help him out?” Nobody did.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for self-checkout machines. At the airport, I gladly use the kiosk to print my boarding passes and check my luggage. While that is technically a “check in” rather than “check out” machine, it works because it handles the same function (printing tickets and checking luggage) over and over again. It is not weighing gala apples, handling coupons, and ringing up buy one, get one free items.

Which brings me back to the simple point of this post. Cutting staff is not the answer when it leads to frustrated customers. Frustrated customers lead to less business and the need for even more cuts.

Food for thought.

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